The World Health Organization defines Health as a "state of complete physical, mental, and social well being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” and the primary source for health, functionality and sustenance of life is food.
The nutrients provided by food are required not only for physical vigor but also for mental and emotional wellness. The brain utilizes nutrients for its structural integrity and functioning. What we eat affects the way we feel and conversely, the way we feel often pushes us towards certain types of food. An unhealthy diet regimen, starvation or binging can lead to severe mood fluctuations and very often psychological distress. Similarly, a rough day or an emotionally draining phase can easily incite cravings for chocolates or sugary foods to provide instant blood glucose spikes giving a sense of satisfaction, thereby launching a vicious cycle that eventually causes systemic dysfunctions.
The 'Science' and 'Signs' of Happiness
It’s all about the feel! Our mood can determine how we perceive, act and react and the brain dictates us what or how to feel. Which raises the next obvious question as to what ordinates our cerebrum or is the brain a self-reliant organ. On a scale of 1 to 10 how surprised will you be to know that there exists a phenomenal connection between our gut and our brain? Whatever gets into our gastrointestinal system mandates how our brain directs the penumbra of mood and behaviour.
So what exactly goes on inside our brain that correlates our choice of food with our mood? There lies a neurological circuitry that connects food to mood! To decipher this, we need to first understand how the complex network of nerve cells consolidates our central nervous system to the body through neurotransmission of signals to and fro.
Neurotransmission is nothing but transmission of signaling molecules or chemical messengers called neurotransmitters from one neuron to another target neuron/muscle cell/gland cell across synaptic junctions to get the desired response. This signal can be of physiological functions, pain, hunger or emotions, etc. As microscopic as it may sound, neurotransmission is nevertheless an energy-consuming process.Since food is the fuel for our body functions, it directly regulates production, secretion, availability, and action of neurotransmitters too. There are more than 100 neurotransmitters identified till date, of which a few directly regulate mood and one's emotional/mental state. A quick glance over these, their mode of action and their response characteristics to nutrition, would help elucidate the neurobiology of wellness.
There are some more substances that play a substantial role in optimizing neurotransmitter levels and influencing our mental well-being.
Food for Thought
Isn’t it astonishing to see the opulence of food options available for improving and sustaining our mental health? Yet, unfortunately these choices are not exploited liberally enough. Mental health is undeniably the most crucial facet of our overall well-being. We may be free of physical ailments but even a modest warp in our emotional or mental state can derail us. Mood is very frivolously spoken of; a person with the quintessential 'mood-swings' is often a subject of disparage, humour and mockery. Hardly anyone, for that matter, the patron himself/herself, would try to fathom out the cause and consequences of his/her state, let aside remediating it! Our mood can determine where we channelize our energy and intellect, use our physical strength and maintain the mind-body balance. And the nutrition we absorb from the food we eat determines the way our mood curves. Food is, ergo, the best prophylactic as well as a therapeutic commodity for our mood.
Lastly, it is not just what we eat but also how we eat that affects the action of nutrients on the brain. The age-old injunction to “enjoy the food you eat and eat slowly” should not be undervalued. Eating the right kind of food, at the right time, and in the right way, is paramount to address and employ its benefits. A piece of dark chocolate gulped down as you hurry out for work at 9am will show little to no benefit. Rather, grab a piece as you play with your kids, or sit with your besties or cuddle with your partner, or just slow down your racing feet, savour its delicacy and feel the endorphins exuding through your blood stream!
Dietitian & Nutritionist Dr. Nafeesa Imteyaz.